Richmond has a comfortable, worn-around-the-edges feel to it; not scruffy, per se, but the stones are worn and the shop fronts haven’t had a lick of paint for some time. It’s a working town, through and through, but has more charm than most. It sprawls beneath a Norman castle, the bailey rising above TV aerials and providing a sanctuary for numerous doves and pigeons in the way of all crumbling ruins. I love the town for its character and most of all for the riverside walks.
Today, with the sky overcast and a Spring chill in the air, I took a walk along the river Swale towards Easby and the ruins of the Premonstratensian (stop sniggering at the back) abbey. I parked in the Co-Op car park and walked down across the bridge towards the Station, now a cinema complex. There were no signposts, but just before the entrance to the Station there was a flight of steps descending towards the footpath running along the river bank. Today also served as a means to break in my new walking boots as the old builder’s boots I’ve been wearing for the past three years had finally been worn out. Inside one, a part of the ankle support had broken and was cutting into my ankle as I walked; the last time I took them off the sock on that foot had a patch of dried blood just above the heel. Lovely.
I followed the footpath away from the town and past a bend in the river where the water flowed placidly between banks of pebbles and sand and tree roots. Along its length, the river alternates between these stretches of tranquil beauty and bubbling rapids running between rocks and stones. For someone who can’t swim, I seem to find myself drawn towards lakes and rivers and waterfalls with alarming frequency.
I walked along the pebble shore until I could go no further and had to retrace my steps to get back onto the main footpath. This ran beneath a wooded canopy for most of its route towards the abbey and was lovely and peaceful even with the dog walkers, mothers with babies and a party of ramblers decked out for an assault on the Matterhorn (did they really need to use pairs of walking sticks in the middle of Richmond?) There was the constant sound of the water winding its way through the countryside and birds in the bushes and trees.
I had stopped glancing around at every tweet and chirp in the trees knowing that my lens isn’t powerful enough to take the kind of photo I’d like. However, just as I was (silently) ridiculing the walking party and their sticks, a robin landed on a branch near me and then dropped down to the path. I took the lens cap off and zoomed in. Yes, it was close enough to make a half-decent photo!
I crouched down and took photo after photo, determined that I wouldn’t miss anything. If it flapped its wings, I wanted to catch it; if it decided to pull a worm from the ground (do robin’s eat worms?) I would snap a photo mid-tug.
I probably took more photos of this one bird than the rest of the walk combined. Anyone passing must have thought I was mad, moving along in a half-crouch as if imitating a Ukrainian dancing the Hopak. Eventually I realised that I was wasting time and that I still had the rest of the walk, not to mention the abbey itself, to photograph. I took one last photo of the bird as it stood on a branch by the side of the path and then we went our seperate ways.
About half a mile down the track the trees fell away for a moment and I was granted my first, long-distance view of the abbey. From where I stood it seemed small and shabby and not really worth the journey. The walls matched the colour of the sky, a kind of grey-ish sandstone in the middle of trees and grass.
I carried on and crossed a wide bridge with metal rails coated in peeling white paint and wooden boards stretching from one side to the other. The river ran underneath in a brackish loop spotted with frothy rapids and rocks the same colour as the abbey stone. Of course, it would make sense that they should be the same. Why build an abbey from anything but local stone?
Across the bridge, the path became a wide track bound on one side by the river and on the other by a wooded slope filled with blue and white wildflowers and birdsong. A short distance on, I heard the sound of a car door slam and an engine starting up. The track I was walking on was actually a lane for a row of houses looking out over the river. What a beautiful place it must be to live; off the beaten track and surrounded by water and woods and photographers.
No, I didn’t take photos of those houses; give me a little credit.
Next to the abbey stands the church of Saint Agatha. I’ve never heard of her, but her church is neat and pretty, if a little too dark inside for photography – I don’t like using a flash if I don’t have to. As I walked around the outside, swifts or swallows (I can never remember which one is which) chased each other over the rooftop and in between the abbey walls where I could see a scattering of people admiring the stones and reading the information boards placed at important points.
At the entrance to the abbey was a map showing the outline of the ruins and an artist’s reconstruction of how the building might have looked in its day. I took photos of the building from what I thought were the best angles and tried to avoid stepping in piles of pigeon droppings. There were a number of signs throughout the complex warning of the dangers of crumbling walls and uneven surfaces but nothing about the current tenants.
With the sky still overcast, I decided to shoot a few black and white photos, the stones full of intersting shapes and angles. My first view back on the other side of the river didn’t give me a clear idea of how big the site actually is. It’s nowhere near as extensive as Fountains Abbey, for example, but there’s still plenty to see. The information signs all have artists’ impressions on them to show what the building must have looked like originally, though sometimes it’s hard to match the painting with the broken arches and crumbling walls.
As usually happens when I’ve got a good ruin to look over, I lost track of time and I’ve no idea how long I was there. Perhaps it was walking between centuries-old walls, their bricks held together by mortar and fragmented memory and only the birds for a congregation, but eventually I knew it was time to move on. As I turned to leave, the sun peered out through a gap in the clouds and the walls turned pale sand in colour. It was as if the old place was coming to life again and I took a few final shots before the light dimmed and the place went back to sleep.
Leaving the abbey, I followed the footpath sign and walked with the river on my left and open fields to my right. At a fork in the path I had the choice of carrying on or taking a left and heading down towards the river bank. I turned left and descended a flight of rough steps.
The woodland at the bottom of the steps was full of white flowers and a strong smell of garlic (a quick online search once I got home informed me that these are called ramsoms – a type of wild garlic).
I have walked more woodland paths than I can remember, but this was one of the most peaceful I have been on. Beneath the trees I couldn’t see the grey sky or hear the traffic on the road. The air was cool and fresh and light.
A sign near the abbey had warned dog owners to keep their animals on leads as the bank was a haven of geese, swans, ducks and other waterfowl. I didn’t see any, but there were plenty of thrushes and finches and the like flitting from branch to branch and staying resolutely out of camera range. Alright, then, I thought, I’ll photograph the bloomin’ garlic!
From here on it was hard to see the river as the trees grew so thick along the bank that they blocked my view most of the time. I could hear things landing on the water and assumed they must be ducks or geese. Small things skittered in the bushes and squeaked at me until I stopped trying to see what they were and went away. I remembered watching a cartoon about gnomes when I was very small and going out looking for the little red hats that the narrator promised I might see if I was very quiet and kept a sharp look-out. I never saw any back then. I didn’t see any today.
After following the path until it became another track to someone’s house, the trees thinned out and I could see the spot where I had taken my first photos of the day. The sky was still overcast and everything looked a little drab from under the trees. I hoped it wouldn’t rain and carried on, wondering where this path was going to lead to; I hadn’t seen any footpath signs since the abbey.
Eventually the path joined the main road above the bridge leading towards the station. To my right was a church that I had never been inside and, since I had plenty of time, I thought I would take a look. It was bigger than St Agatha’s and looked like there might be better light inside for photography. Alas, the door was locked and I contented myself with a few photos of the gargoyles leaning out from the roof and regarding me with a stoney indifference. Perhaps it was time to go home.